City Manager Tom Ambrosino delivered his annual State of the City address to the Council on Monday night, going through the lows of 2020 while identifying the pitfalls coming in 2021, but also noting that he is more optimistic at the moment than he has been over the last year.
“It’s been the hardest on me in my 30 years of public service, and it’s probably been the hardest on this City in its history,” he said. “However, I have to say for the last few months I actually feel a sense of optimism – optimism ground in the belief that despite a still-raging pandemic and despite continued economic turmoil and notwithstanding unresolved racial injustice, we do seem poised as a City and a nation to turn a corner. The vaccines are here, and though distribution is frustratingly slow, it is here.
“I feel confident this virus will be brought to heal in Chelsea in the next few months,” he said, noting an incredible moment for the hard-hit community.
His address began with discussion those hard hit times. He noted that the City had been “unprecedented and tragic,” calling out the 218 deaths that occurred in Chelsea alone due to COVID-19. He added in the racial injustice brought to light after the George Floyd murder, the insurrection at the nation’s Capitol building, among other events.
“A year like that could easily leave one completely discouraged,” he said. “That’s not how I look back on this past year, certainly not as the leader of this City. In the midst of all that darkness, there was some light and it was a light that was clearly visible here in Chelsea. Most apparent from the way this City rallied together to respond to the pandemic.”
At that, Ambrosino highlighted the work Chelsea did to provide relief to residents, and noted once again it was more than any City its size had done for to support its residents. That included rental assistance, small business assistance, food pantries, the COVID isolation hotel, the Legal Aid Clinic and the innovative Chelsea Eats debit card program.
“(Chelsea Eats) was one of the largest pilots in the nation of direct, unfettered money to those in need,” he said. “That’s a program that could become a national model for how you deliver effective safety net relief.”
Ambrosino also highlighted the work that was done over the summer to respond to racial inequities in City government. He said they moved fast to establish the Diversity and Equity Office, and are only days away from picking its first director.
Beyond the victories in 2020, Ambrosino reiterated four challenges in 2021 that he also identified during the January inauguration of the City Council.
“Significant challenges confront us now as we speak,” he said.
One of those issues is housing insecurity, and he said the City is going to have to somehow address the rent backlogs that exist and will only grow as time passes by.
He also highlighted the package of zoning changes that was sent to the Council after a mostly-positive recommendation from the Planning Board. One of the key changes there include building more density. Meanwhile, a Home Rule Petition approved in the State Legislature not long ago allows for Tax Title properties in the City to be transferred to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund for development of affordable housing – a first in any community.
I expect very shortly that Board will come to the Council seeking a transfer for their first project,” he said.
A second concern is rebuilding the small business community. He said the City is going to have to invest significant money to get small businesses away from the crisis stage and back to sustainability. He said he has tasked the City’s Community Development office with getting out into the community and beginning that work.
Rebuild Small Biz Community
“I have instructed the DHCD to spend the next month working closely with the business community and the Council to develop ideas how we might most effectively jump start that sector with government support,” he said. “I expect that could include assistance for outdoor dining, a second round of the storefront improvement program and perhaps sponsoring some events to draw business to the commercial sector once it is safe for larger gatherings. The details are still in development, but the City is committed to using government resources to fuel this business recovery.”
Meanwhile, while small business is getting on firm financial ground, Ambrosino said the City needs to begin thinking about building back its reserves. The pandemic caused the City to reach deep into its Rainy Day Fund, with the Fund having been at around $25 million before the pandemic, and now at $15 million. He said they spent $12 million to support residents, and $5 million of that came from the City’s savings. Another $5 million was used to prop up the budget this year due to declining revenues.
“We do have some work to build back up our financial strength,” he said. “I will say things are not as bleak as those circumstances first indicated. In fact the economic prospects for FY22 are looking better…Re-building $10 million of our reserves will be difficult but we will begin that in FY22.”
Finally, the last point of attention he said needed to be the school system. He said Chelsea Public Schools will not be able to function without help from the City.
Wrapping it up, Ambrosino said he remains hopeful for 2021 and that working together, City leaders will find their way out of the pandemic.
“I have every faith and confidence that working together with you we’ll find the right path forward in 2021,” he said. “Our City was tested and shaken in 2020. I’ll quote one of my favorite Bible verses, ‘We were hard pressed on every side, but we were not crushed.’ Instead we emerged intact and the State of Chelsea tonight remains steady, strong and determined.”